Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Toxic Place

One does not always have a choice. Sometimes, one ends up in a toxic environment, and the question arises of what to do from a mindful, compassionate place?

I asked my fellow tweeters:
other than need to exit, what is there to learn from being in a toxic environment?

And got the following answers:

@FullContactTMcG I learned compassion from sitting in my formerly toxic environment. For self and other... Then I left that relationship

@blkwriter the ability to hang in there if need be

@kabzj radical responsibility?

@JDProuty not much to learn in toxic environments but a good place to teach
                    toxic environments ~ toughest test of mindfulness ~ teach by example

@debraZERO I have found my voice, I don't want to suffer w/them. It's okay to be happy.

@Digitt one can learn the ability to transform negative energy into positive.
              just a state of mind. A shift in perception and standing in your power.

That's a lot of wisdom, right there.

For myself, I have found toxic environments to be useful up to a point. Useful tests of one's wisdom, kindness, compassion, and non reactivity. This fear I feel, whose is it? Of course, mine always, in the end. How about the anger? Same thing, a reaction from 'I' to difficult outer circumstances, and people. Intellectually, I could see that it was my choice to let the toxic brew seep in, or not. And at the same time, I found mindfulness can only go so far. At some point, one needs to leave. Some personalities, some situations are real pollutants for the mind, and the heart. 

“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” 
Mahatma Gandhi ~

Then the real work begins, of purifying one's mind from the unwholesome thoughts that may linger after one has left the actual place, or person. Owning one's propensity to dukkha, and investigating the effect on one's happiness. Replacing the anger with loving kindness. 'May he be at peace, may he be well.' And 'May I be at peace, may I be well.'

Saturday, November 26, 2011

6 Reasons to Follow the Breath

First breath, last breath, and millions in between . . .

Breath. Such a basic physical phenomenon. And one of the most useful objects of attention during mindfulness practice.

More and more, I have come to rely on the breath to 'save' me. And here is why:

It is not 'I' who breathes, but rather the body that is being breathed. Focusing on the movement of breathing, relaxing into the automatic ins and outs of breath, the 'I' can relax. Reaping the joy from anatta . . .

While busy following the breath, the mind gets occupied with the wholesome activity of noticing the  sensations of breath in, breath out. Meanwhile the unwholesome thoughts are kept at bay. Purifying the mind with attention to the breath . . .

With the beginning of each new breath, a new birth. With the ending of each breath, another death. Nothing to hold on to. Watching impermanence in action, over and over, and over . . . 

Breathing in, belly and chest naturally expands, and bodily tensions get a chance to relax. Breathing out, impurities in the mind get flushed out. Calming the bodily and mental formations with the mechanics of breath . . .

Resting in the space between each inhalation and exhalation, the pleasure awaits of yet another visit from breath, another moment of life, given. Taking in the good . . . and cultivating gratitude.

Sitting still, in silence. Nothing else belongs to this moment, except the ongoing movement of  breath. As the mind starts to wander away, the irrelevance of most thoughts becomes clear. Breath as reference point . . . 

Finding out for one self what is meant in the Anapanasati Sutta.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Be Social, Be Mindful

I used to think of social gatherings as the last places to practice mindfulness. So noisy, so much stimulation, so much mindlessness all around . . . 

Inspired by U Tejaniya's teachings, I have come around to another point of view. Yesterday's Thanksgiving became another opportunity for practice. More than twenty people gathered, many of whom I only get to see once a year. Some I have more connections with than others. And each new encounter, a chance to observe the mind at work. 

How much do I really listen? How active is the 'commentator', the judge? How quickly do 'I' decide, "I like this conversation", or "This person is boring"? How many stories from the past do I bring into each interaction? What she said to me five years ago, and I still have not forgiven? Or the memory of a heartfelt conversation that brought the two of us close once? Who do I choose to speak to, and who do I ignore? How does it feel right in the core of my body? Tensing? Or relaxing? What is the emotion? So much to process in a matter of seconds.

I found that practicing in this way gave the evening a whole different flavor. First, I learned much about  the many ways in which the mind can create wedges between one self and others. The trick is to catch the thoughts before they have a chance to get acted out into words, or behaviors. Besides insight, much joy is to be had as well. Joy from being more present, and more kind. Right now, there is only me and him, this almost stranger whom I will probably not see until same time, next year. It is not about 'me', it's about him and what he is saying, and watching the impurities of my own mind wash away, leaving my heart free to meet him. 

How do you bring mindfulness to your social interactions? What do you notice?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Feeling Impatient? Feel Grateful.

The trip started well. No traffic on the freeway, boarding pass printed ahead of time, no luggage to checkin,  I made it to gate 55 in record time. Then, the announcement that flight 1931 was being delayed an hour. Great, I thought, I will be able to try out the new egg chairs in the lounge. I had work to do, and did not mind the unexpected extra time. An hour soon turned into two, and then three. I surprised myself with my  lack of impatience. 

Later, standing outside terminal 4 at LAX, a series of texts from my daughter about her being stuck in traffic left me equally unfazed. When she finally arrived an hour later, I felt only gladness. It took us another two hours to reach her apartment instead of the usual 20 minutes. I watched drivers around us agitate their horns and attempt to make rash moves. Nowhere to go, but hundreds of restless minds needing to be indulged, right now.

I wondered, how come the calmness that had stayed with me for all this time?

It certainly helped that I had practiced sitting earlier in the day.

It certainly helped that I countered thoughts of dislike about flight travel with thoughts of gratitude about the fact that I could travel, and was soon to see my daughter. Thinking about my friends at the assisted living community, who can no longer venture even a few blocks without depending on the company of a willing other. Or the woman at Zen Hospice who was dying of lung cancer, and spent her last days bent over, head cupped in her hands, trying to catch some air. Thinking about this precious life, and nothing to be taken for granted, not even breath or the privilege of walking around a crowded airport. 

Gratitude is what had done away with any velleity of impatience.  

Monday, November 21, 2011

Off to a Good Start

Waking up every day, same possibilities.

Either jump in, unaware, into the mayhem of the day, and be prepared for the consequences.  Or, stop and choose to dwell in mindfulness even before opening one's yes, following Ayya Khema's wise counsel. I have chosen the latter and perfected a routine that has done me a lot of good.

Laying in bed, at the first moment of consciousness, I peak at the early morning light, and I close my eyes again. Getting in touch with breath, and the general climate inside. What is the general feeling? Am I starting off with resistance, or willingness? As of late, there has been lots of reluctance. I remember Ruth Denison's teachings on vedana. Recognize the unpleasantness and it will diminish. She is right. Embracing the tightness, I can feel the body relax. Mind almost always follows with gladness, and gratitude for the gift of breath, and life starting anew, once more. It is now time to open the eyes, slowly as instructed by Ayya Khema, noticing the stickiness of upper and lower lids parting after a long night, and the brightness streaming in. 

Listening to the body, I give it what it wants. A few long, slow cat stretches. Spine cracks with delight. I am ready to get up.  Walking to the bathroom turns into a short walking meditation. First feeling the stickiness of bare feet against the wooden floor, then coldness from the marble tiles. Watching the various body parts, moving in accord to perform the rituals of toileting, brushing teeth, and freshening up. And the mind also, as it tries to take me away from each moment, already. 

Next is another critical juncture. To sit now, or later? I have found it best to sit first thing. This way, I am sure to get some practice in, and I prep the mind for the rest of the day. Giving the mind a chance to settle before external events have agitated it too much. Less effort is required to calm the mind, and also one can start the day from a centered place. Nascent unskillful thoughts can be addressed before they get a chance to mushroom into some kind of intractable state. 

We have so much control over our life. Good day, bad day, it's up to us to set the right tone from the start.

How do you usually start each day? Is mindfulness a part of your morning routine? 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Living up to Our Mindfulness Potential

I am not yet done listening to this wonderful talk given by Ayya Khema. Many gems to be found there, and in particular:

"Most people use mindfulness just enough to survive."

Using mindfulness to cross the street, to brush our teeth, to type this post, to eat breakfast, to work, to make love, to buy groceries, to go to the bathroom . . .

Using mindfulness to function, and go through the mechanics of daily living.

Ayya Khema, and other wise teachers tell us there is more to life however.

Life can be lived in freedom from the unnecessary suffering of clinging to what cannot be had.

Mindfulness practice is about using all of our mindfulness potential to find the joy of life lived free the tyranny of our habitual cravings. Whenever I realize how little I make use of such gold mine, I feel great sadness. Such a waste!

Ayya Khema reminds us of some simple steps we can take to deepen our use of mindfulness: 

Formal practice, for sure, as in sitting and walking meditation.
And also, being mindful of the content of our mind outside of meditation, being aware of unwholesome thoughts and substituting them with wholesome thoughts. Purifying the mind.
Being mindful of the body outside of meditation, watching our movements, e.g. body walking to the table.

Often I interrupt the day with one of these three questions:
What am I doing? What am I thinking? How am I feeling?

How much of your mindfulness potential are you using?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

No Need For Panic

Sitting this morning, I found a succession of short, shallow breaths. The underline panic I have been feeling lately is still there, threatening to take over if I am not careful. 

Thirty years ago, standing on the sidewalk right by the Chicago L station, I encountered such breath, and not knowing, I gave in. Pretty soon, it felt as if I could no longer breathe. I was having a heart attack I thought and I called my doctor. He had me count until one hundred, without much success. The iron corset got even tighter, and I ended up in the ER. I got hooked up on the EKG machine. My heart was perfectly fine. I had just had a panic attack. 

Since that day, I have had a predisposition to panic. And I have learned ways to be with it. For a long time, I relied on the combined power of positive self-talk, belly breathing, and distraction. It worked. Somewhat.

What has really helped has been mindfulness practice, and particularly a deeper understanding of the role of one's attitude towards the panic itself. 

The Buddha himself has been my greatest teacher in that respect:

"Breathing in long he knows ‘I am breathing in long.’ 
Breathing in short he knows ‘I am breathing in short.’  
Breathing out long he knows ‘I am breathing out long.’ 
Breathing out short he knows ‘I am breathing in short.’ 

He trains himself ‘breathing in, I experience the whole body.’ 
‘breathing out, I experience the whole body.’ 
He trains himself, ‘breathing in, I calm the bodily formation.’ 
‘breathing out, I calm the bodily formation.’" 

~ Anapanasati Sutta ~

Breathing in short, I know 'I am breathing in short' . . . Breathing out short, I know 'I am breathing out short' . . . Breathing in, I experience the tightness around the chest . . . Breathing out, I experience the tightness around the chest . . . Breathing in, I make room for shallow breath, and tightness, and the possibility of maybe relaxing a bit . . . Breathing out, I continue to make room for the whole experience . . . I also include a more neutral experience in the body, such as the sensations in my hands or feet, giving mind a break from the breath. Then returning again to the breath . . . Breathing in short, I know 'I am breathing in short' . . . 

From this acceptance, the tight corset starts relaxing, giving breath more space to fill in the lungs, and mind a chance to calm down.

Such a subtle, and important shift.

Not panicking about the panic!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Medicine For Choppy Waters

It's been rough, lately. Choppy waters require strong medicine, and I have been especially vigilant to keep up with my mindfulness practice. 


Making sure to sit every morning first thing, for thirty minutes each time. And upping opportunities for informal practice throughout the day. Driving, I concentrate on driving, and nothing else. Walking to work, same thing. In between clients or meetings, I 'steal' a few minutes to sit, and reconnect with breath, and myself. Drinking a cup of coffee, I resist the temptation of checking messages on my phone, and I turn that time into another meditation. etc, etc . . .

That way, I can start each day from a calm, centered place, and I am better equipped to deal with the turbulences. 

How do you deal with the rough seas in your life? Do you practice? Do you escape? Do you react?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

From Conceptual to Experiential Self

From Philippe Goldin's presentation this weekend at El Camino Hospital (an event benefitting Bob Stahl's MBSR scholarship program), I found the following slide on 'Self-Focused Processing' particularly useful:

Conceptual or narrative self:
  • past-future
  • fixed self-concept
  • rumination
Experiential or embodied self:
  • present-moment focused
  • continuously changing experience of self
  • reduced problems with depression, anxiety, etc . . . 
A 21st century version of the teachings on anatta . . . with a focus on the health benefits of an experiential view of the self. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Anything But This Moment . . .

Sitting, it usually does not take long before the unpleasantness makes itself felt. Drinking from the bitter cup of suffering is an exercise in patience, and faith. One that I am not always able to see through the end. Lately, it has been hard staying seated for the whole thirty minutes.

Walking, I thought I would be brave and go 'naked' without my phone. This is the perfect opportunity to turn exercise into a walking meditation, I tell myself. Soon, I discover the pain there also. The same one I was feeling during sitting. To stay with each step and the burden of fully felt discomfort, or to find ways to escape? The mind ends up playing its usual tricks and takes me somewhere else.

At the gym, I went without a book. Yes, I shall turn the time on the elliptical machine into yet another form of practice. It's been a while since I have exercised my heart so hard. Body, breath, and mind start to rebel against so much effort. I start wishing I had not left the book at home. Anything but this moment . . . Then remembering 'breath as an anchor', I decide to investigate the new sensation of breath under stress. Mouth open, throat dry, air burning through the lungs. For a while, I forget that I don't want to do this.

Throughout each day, I make many such overtures to mindfulness, and I almost always find it incredibly challenging to stay with the unpleasantness. This is why sustained practice is so hard.

How do you manage to stay mindful?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Putting Myself to Sleep

I have had lots on my plate lately . . . and each evening, same story. The familiar tightness makes itself felt, that could keep me up all night. 

Rather than getting even more upset by such unwelcome visitor, I have discovered a new way of being that has made it (relatively) easy to fall into the oblivion of sleep. 

It goes like this . . . 

Lying in bed, I turn my attention to the whole experience of body in repose, pressure in the throat, knot in the stomach, and also breath coming and going at its own pace. Back and forth, between tightness and breath. Embracing the discomfort, meanwhile letting body being breathed. Each breath, a gentle stroke against the fear, and the butterflies swirling inside. Softening, softening, and making room for growing delight. 

Surrendering to the sweetness of breath.

How do you put yourself to sleep?

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